What's so important about the ethics of free software?

Charles Cossé ccosse at gmail.com
Mon Dec 19 07:20:34 UTC 2016

On Sun, Dec 18, 2016 at 10:48 PM, J.B. Nicholson <jbn at forestfield.org>

> Charles Cossé wrote:
>> Statements like "Free Software supports education, proprietary software
>> forbids" [1] <https://www.gnu.org/education/> strike me as outrageous and
>> counter-productive.
> A proprietary program's license is designed to offer no permission for its
> users to learn how that program works. Thus proprietary software forbids
> that education.

Not necessarily.  If I license it with a proprietary license, yet still
publish the complete source, then your statement it factually incorrect.
As well, if the application is written as static Javascript then the
complete source is available through the browser without even the need for

> What should strike you as outrageous is that when schools deploy
> proprietary software they are telling a student that their education ought
> not include understanding how their computer (including the software on it)
> works.

Your use of the word "should" is, again, overstepping.  It is not for you
to tell anyone what they "should" find outrageous.  Regarding your point, I
believe that it is unlikely that any educator would concur with your
assertion that they are "telling a student that their education ought not
include" such understanding.  If the goal of the educator is to get the job
done and teach the kids math then they are probably not concerned with such
fine-grained philosophical subtleties.

> I understand that what is meant there is merely computer science
>> education and not education in general, but even that goes too far.
> I don't know how you came to understand that this is somehow restricted to
> "merely computer science education" nor do I see any such understanding
> conveyed in https://www.gnu.org/education/. Perhaps you were confused by
> the mention of reading and writing code.

You said it yourself, above, in the context of "ought not include such
understanding ..."

> If I want to put a new version of my FSF-registed
>> <https://directory.fsf.org/wiki/TuxMathScrabble> education software
>> online without GPL-ing it, that certainly isn't "forbidding" any
>> education that it was ever intended for, i.e. kids to *use* the software
>> to learn math.
> Perhaps not (I can't say for sure without looking into the licenses of the
> program dependencies), but your intentions shouldn't limit what people can
> do with the software on their own computers.

Once again, I take issue with your use of the word "shouldn't".  My
intentions can be whatever I decide my intentions are.  Keyword: "my".  "My
intentions", as in "freedom of intent".  You actually believe that the
user's "rights" exceed mine as the author?  I'm willing to bet that there
is at least one other person out there in the FSF(E) community that is
willing to stand-up and publicly challenge that assertion.  Anyone?

> Also, the GNU GPL is not the only free software license. This license,
> when defended legally including court action if needed, does an excellent
> job of preserving a user's software freedom. But there are many other free
> software licenses from which to choose.
> However if this new version were distributed as non-free software, users
> would not be able to trust that the program isn't doing something they
> don't want the program to do.

Again, not necessarily.  If it is static Javascript with a proprietary
license then please defend your position in that case.

> Depending on the implementation details, the program might not even run
> when desired. The best way to ensure that programs do only what one wants
> them to do is to deal strictly in free software. Then any suspicious
> activity can be fully looked into and corrected.

> It's the same as saying that we should stop eating organically grown
>> food because there's a Window's system involved in the food chain.
> No, it's not the same. It's worth remembering that the first programs
> Stallman wrote for GNU were written on and intended to be run on non-free
> OSes because non-free OSes were the only available systems at the time. He
> couldn't wait for a fully-free OS (such as what's listed in the
> FSF-approved free distros at https://www.gnu.org/distros/free-distros.html)
> to exist so he recognized that a free Unix-like OS is built from free
> programs and he set out replacing non-free programs with free replacement
> programs. We have a better situation today than Stallman did when he
> started GNU because we have fully-free operating systems on which to do our
> work.

In a post-GNU/Linux world it is the same thing.  FSF(E) is making an
unproveable moral statement which alienates people from its mission.
FSF(E) can still pursue the same goals and ideals without invoking
unproveable moral arguments which have nothing to do with software and are
a cop-out as far as reasons  to embrace free software.

> What if life on earth was in danger and couldn't be saved because of
>> FSF-induced gridlock, i.e. because in order to save life on earth we would
>> have to do something "unethical / immoral", namely use non-free software
>> ... at what point does it become acceptable?  Why bother with the ethical
>> arguments at all?  Just advocate for the transparency and more people will
>> join the cause.
> Apparently the ethical arguments are quite compelling and foresee problems
> excellently, offering potent time-honored responses to modern-day problems.

They certainly are a blanket solution and alternative to actual compelling
reasons.   Invoking God, or ethics in this case, is hardly convincing these
days.  What does the rest of the FSF community have to say on this?  It's
okay to challenge sacred beliefs, it happens all the time.

> Listen to any of Eben Moglen's speeches and you're sure to hear him say
> "Stallman was there first" or words to that effect. Perhaps Stallman's most
> well-known instance of this prescience is his dystopic short story "The
> Right to Read". We see this coming to pass with DRM-riddled eBooks and
> TiVOized hardware.
> How we treat other people is always a critical concern. As modern society
> depends more on the computer, how we treat other people via computers
> becomes increasingly important. These days, it's a life-or-death issue
> whether people can retain their privacy (the US government uses tracker,
> aka cell phone, location data to know where to send drone-launched bomb
> attacks, for example), the Snowden revelations put a fine point on how
> urgent it is that we help people conduct their lives with more privacy. We
> all ought to have the freedom to control our own computers and collaborate
> to improve our society. Quite a lot of what the FSF mentions in
> https://www.gnu.org/education/edu-schools.html doesn't just apply to
> schools.

Snowden is a traitor to the United States.   He was not privy to the
information that he stole.  He actively sought trouble and he found it by
exploiting his colleagues.  Regardless of the contents and revelations that

> The first part of your quote above is ridiculous

-1 for that.  In fact, that is how scientists often test the validity of
certain assertions -- namely by looking at asymptotic cases.  If something
is true in a moral / ethical / just sense, then accordingly it should be
true in all cases, such as my hypothetical case above.

> but it contains a small germ of a sensible question within it, so I'll try
> to address that: is it ever ethical to run non-free software? RMS's talks
> address this directly -- yes, to reverse-engineer it.

Or to save the planet in the hypothetical situation which you dismissed as
"ridiculous".  I would go much further, including to teach our kids via
computer.  Consider a 5 year old learning the alphabet via computer.  You
think it matters if the 5 year old can access the source code?

> There's great value in providing interoperable free software replacements
> for non-free software. Reverse-engineering file formats, communication
> protocols, and reimplementing programs so they can provide the same
> functionality (even if they're not drop-in replacements) are all very
> valuable in the free world so that users can cooperate with other systems
> without losing their software freedom.

"Great value" and "moral obligation" are quite different.  I urge FSF(E)
members to consider modifying the FSF(E) doctrine to make it more realistic
and inclusive.

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